Cumberland Times-News

Columns

November 30, 2013

A lot of American soldiers were there

Gettysburg’s annual Remembrance Day parade commemorates a short speech President Lincoln made there, incomplete versions of which are said to be found in the Lincoln Memorial itself and President Obama’s recent recitation of it.

Some folks say a couple of words were omitted from the plaque in the memorial because there wasn’t room for them. President Obama was pilloried for not saying, “under God.”

However, there are five known manuscripts of the Gettysburg Address. They differ from each other and don’t match newspaper accounts. It would have been impossible to put all five versions on the plaque.

Two contain “under God,” but the other three don’t. Lincoln is said to have spontaneously added “under God” to a prepared version that didn’t contain it, but that also is disputed.

Who cares? What’s important is the substance, not the exact form.

Capt. Gary and 1Sgt. Goldy are bona fide blue-bellied Yankees, but don’t march. We are independent contractors who belong to no organized outfit (sort of like the Democrats used to be and the Republicans are now). Besides, it’s two miles long.

We stand and watch near the end of the route, and some of the marchers are all in by the time they get to us. Even a horse that looked worn out stared at the captain and me, snorted and shook his head, as if he was telling us, “I’m gettin’ too damn old for this ... .”

Besides, you don’t have to march in a parade to participate in it.

The 54th Massachusetts honors U.S. Colored Troops who fought with ferocious courage but were slaughtered at Fort Wagner.

When they march by, EVERYONE cheers. The captain and I call out, “Give ‘em hell, 54th!” like the white soldiers did in the movie “Glory,” and our buddy Reggie grins and gives us a fist-pump.

Groups of women pass in their Civil War-era gowns, looking magnificent. We tip our hats and bow to them, and we offer our condolences to those who wear the widow’s weeds — the mourning dress of one whose soldier husband has died in the war.

We can’t see the faces of the widows because they are veiled, but the others smile and wave to us, maybe even give a little curtsy.

Lincoln rides with President Davis of the Confederacy in the same carriage. We tip our hats and salute, and they tip their hats to us.

We applaud for marching bands. Other groups have drummers only — up to a couple of dozen — and they march by with a thunderous brrrump ... brrrump ... brrrump, bump-bump.

The captain and I agree: If that don’t get your blood up, nothin’ will.

When the First Maryland Infantry came by, I gave a “Hurrah for Maryland!” and was rewarded with a chorus of “Huzzah!”s.

Two things to explain here: First, I consider myself a West Virginian because that’s where I was raised and live today. But I also think of myself as a Marylander because I was born in Cumberland, lived here for 30 years and have worked here for 44 years.

Second thing, this was the First Maryland of the Confederate Army. If the First Maryland of the Union Army had been represented, I’d have cheered just as loudly for them. I’d have done the same for the 96th Pennsylvania Infantry or 11th Virginia Cavalry, in which some of my relatives served at Gettysburg.

The First Maryland Rebels fought hand-to-hand with the First Maryland Yankees at Culp’s Hill.

West Virginia had four outfits at Gettysburg, but none is ever represented in the parade.

Some of the officers are friends of ours. We salute them and they salute back, and then we holler at each other.

That includes Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. Several different men portray General Lee, but we generally see only one of them — a fellow named Phil. (Get it? General Lee ... generally?)

Phil drives a gray convertible he calls “Traveller,” after General Lee’s horse. He and his family visited us in their civilian clothes at Little Round Top the day before the parade.

“We came up today because I figured you guys would be here,” he said, which made us feel like a million bucks.

When he and his men come in uniform, they stop at the bottom of the hill, salute and request permission to approach. They never got that far during the battle, you see.

Confederate units march at the end of the parade, and this year there may have been more than ever.

The captain and I salute the officers we know — he yelled to General George Pickett that “You’re goin’ in the right direction, general: south!” which got a grin.

We tip our hats to all the rest — the same gesture accorded to Lee and his men by Grant and his men after the surrender at Appomattox.

Some salute or tip their caps to us or, if they are carrying a musket, salute by raising a hand to it.

One of the General Lees rested his horse beside us when the parade halted briefly. I saluted and tipped my hat to him, and he returned my salute.

“Lot of American soldiers here today, captain,” I told Gary, loudly enough for the general to hear me. He turned, tipped his hat to me and nodded.

That’s how it works. As Grant told his troops, we are all countrymen again.

Another thing that was observed while we were in Gettysburg was the 50th anniversity of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. (Yes, I remember where I was.)

“Ask not what your country can do for you,” he told us. “Ask what you can do for your country.”

I don’t know if it still works that way. Ours has become a culture in which people expect the country and other people to do things for them — things that at one time they would have insisted on doing for themselves.

Lincoln and Kennedy gave America the promise of better days, but both were stolen from us at a time we most needed them.

Gary and I asked each other what America would be like today if both men had lived, and neither of us had the answer.

Whittier wrote, “For of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been.’ ”

Not for me. I continue to believe in America, which is why I prefer these words:

What still is yet to be?

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